Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering an American Value

By Chuck Green

Another Independence Day approaches and my mind is drawn to American values.  You may be thinking about the Declaration of Independence and its promise, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  That would certainly be appropriate, for that ideal motivated first a nation and then the world to improve the lot of mankind.  But I am thinking of another American value, one that is also deeply rooted in American history – standing up for what is right in the face of great risk.  Three examples come to mind, the first in pre-revolution America, the second before the Civil War and the third in the tumultuous 1960s.

In March 1770 Boston was the center of revolutionary fervor in the colonies. It had been occupied for eighteen months by British troops.  The frustration and antagonism of the Bostonians was matched by the insolence and brutality of the British troops.  A series of clashes between soldiers and civilians escalated into a confrontation between a crowd of colonists and seven British soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston.  Shots were fired and five colonists were killed.  Captain Preston and seven soldiers were arrested and charged with murder for what became known as the Boston Massacre.

As the trial of British soldiers approached the authorities wondered who they could possibly get to represent the defendants.  Who stepped forward to take on this thankless task?  John Adams, lawyer, revolutionary patriot, future signer of the Declaration of Independence, first Vice President and second President of the United States.  Though the people were hotly against him, he zealously represented the British soldier defendants because even the hated British soldiers had a right to a defense and he thought the charges were based on passion not facts.  Adams argued the law ought not “bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men.”  It didn’t.  All defendants were acquitted of murder charges; only two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter and they avoided the death penalty.  Adams risked his reputation and political future to stand up for what was right under the law.  

In 1857 the Supreme Court of the United States issued a controversial opinion that changed the course of American history.  They considered the meaning of the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  The Supreme Court held that “neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.”  They held the words “all men” did not really mean “all men;” and their holding became the law of the land.  

This decision propelled the nation toward war, for a great many people knew this was not right.  One of them was a young man from Illinois who stood up for what is right in the public square.  He was Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, future President and Commander in Chief of the Union armies during the Civil War.  In the sixth Lincoln – Douglas debate in October 1858, Lincoln argued “there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence-the right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Lincoln stood up for and fought for what was right, even though it was contrary to the law.  Lincoln was right.  The bloody Civil War was fought to prove it, and millions of slaves were freed and became citizens.

About a hundred years later, though Black Americans were then indisputably included amongst those entitled to the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, history had demonstrated the difficulty of changing the hardened hearts of man.   Entitlement to rights was proven not to be the same as obtaining those rights.  The evils of “separate but equal” and Jim Crow laws stood in the way.   Who stood up for right this time?  There were many, but a prominent one was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a young Baptist preacher from Georgia with a passion for civil rights.  

In 1963 he urged “now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”  He motivated and persuaded others by his dream “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’"  Finally, he appealed to moral logic as he envisioned “that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:  Free at last! Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  The Rev. King stood up for what was right when, as Adams had warned, the law had become subject to the “uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men.”  It cost him his life, but he changed the hearts of a nation.  

These are examples of an American value - two lawyers and a preacher who stood up for right at great risk.  Adams stood in support of the law, Lincoln stood against the law, and the Rev. King stood against the unfair application of the law.  As we approach the Fourth of July, what will we stand for?

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